For years professionals in the theatre and movie industry have turned to a little product that unites costume with character.
That product is an alcoholic adhesive liquid called Spirit Gum, which is used by actors and actresses to apply fake hair, mustaches and other facial features.
It is this unification that has become the basis for the Nanaimo Art Gallery’s newest exhibit, Spirit Gum, which is on display until early August.
The exhibit examines human performance and identity in a variety of contexts and media.
“Spirit Gum is about performance and the performance of identity through the practices of contemporary artists,” said Jesse Birch, Nanaimo Art Gallery artistic director and exhibit co-curator. “In the show there are a range of approaches to the way that identity is performed.”
The exhibit features pieces by a handful of artists including Mike Bourscheid, Gilbert and George, Jack Harman, Carole Itter, Katie Lyle, Elizabeth Milton, Shana Moulton, Krista Belle Stewart and Skawennati.
“Some of the works represent a kind of empowerment that comes from performing ones own identity and some of them deal with the issues that come up when we are performing based on the wills of others,” Birch said.
Birch said that as humans we all perform in some capacity.
“We are all implicated in performance,” he said. “We all perform our own identity on a everyday level.”
Spirit Gum is the first exhibit since the Nanaimo Art Gallery merged its two locations in May.
Birch said part of the idea to create Spirit Gum came from the two spaces joining together.
“We were really interested in that idea of transformation,” Birch said.
The exhibit was curated by Birch along with curatorial intern Kara Hansen, who both say Spirit Gum is a way to people to examine different types of performance.
“Even though at face value maybe not everything appears as a performance, every work takes that performance through different vantage points,” Hansen said.
In an effort to make it easier for people to figure out what pieces were created by a particular artist, the gallery has come up with a brochure that provides biographical information and assigns each artist a unique symbol beside their name.
Among the many works featured in Spirit Gum are nine photographs by French artist Claude Cahun.
Cahun was born Lucy Schwob in 1894 and used a gender-neutral name for her art and writing. Her works were often self-portraits of herself exploring different ideas of gender.
“She was one of the earliest artists to explore identity through photography,” Birch said.
Cahun, who died in 1954, often used her artistic creativity as a form of political activism. Birch explained that she would often dress up pretending to be a member of the Nazi Party and distribute anti-German leaflets.
“She would also dress up in political situations,” Birch said. “She would dress up like the National Socialists and she would slip secret messages into other National Socialist’s pockets.”
Also part of the exhibit is former mayor, Frank Ney.
“Part of the show is declaring that Frank Ney is Nanaimo’s most important performance artist,” Birch said.
Birch said Ney, who became well-known for dressing up in a pirate costume, was a terrific performer.
“He performed his entire life and even still today he performs for every single person who goes down to Maffeo Sutton,” Birch said.
To get across the idea of performance, the exhibit includes a picture of Ney and Pete Maffeo wearing costumes and planting a palm tree in 1964 as well as a miniature wax statue of Ney, which is normally on display at Frank J Ney Elementary.
Birch says the show is a way to remind people that life is a performance.
“We’re always sort of in a performance,” Birch said. “It is a nice thing to be reminded about when we go about our daily lives.”
Spirit Gum runs until Aug. 8 at the Nanaimo Art Gallery, 150 Commercial St.
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